Portland, Nova Scotia talk renewal of ferry service

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PORTLAND — Three years after the last international ferry left Portland for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the city is discussing efforts to restore service with the Canadian port.

Mayor Michael Brennan and City Manager Mark Rees hosted a Dec. 14 meeting with officials from Nova Scotia, which issued a request for proposals the previous week for an operator to provide ferry service between Yarmouth and Portland.

As reported in September, the province has pledged to provide up to $21 million over seven years to help launch the service. After that, the service would have to be economically self-supporting.

The new ferry would cater to seasonal, tourism-related passengers and vehicles, but also might provide freight or off-season services, according to a City Hall press release. Proposals are due Jan. 24.

Brennan and Rees led the Canadian officials on a tour of the Ocean Gateway passenger terminal and the International Marine Terminal – both capable of supporting ferry service; indeed, both terminals already have.

The Ocean Gateway terminal, near India and Commercial streets, was built in 2008 to accommodate The Cat, a high-speed, 760-passenger catamaran that began making five-hour crossings to Yarmouth in 2006. The ferry operator, Bay Ferries Ltd., stopped service in 2009 after Nova Scotia ended its annual subsidies, which ranged up to $7 million.

The loss of The Cat cost Portland about $150,000 a year, which Bay Ferries had paid to use the terminal. Since then, rentals for concerts, weddings and events have been offsetting some of the lost income.

At the other end of the waterfront, near the Casco Bay Bridge, the International Marine Terminal had been home port for earlier Nova Scotia ferries. They include the Scotia Prince, which plied the 180-mile route to Yarmouth between 1982 and 2004, and the Prince of Fundy, began service in 1970. Today, the terminal is used primarily for cargo shipping.

Since The Cat made its last port of call, both Maine and Nova Scotia have been exploring the possibility of restoring service. In April, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter announced the creation of an expert panel to study the feasibility of a new ferry.

According to the panels’s report, issued in August, a re-established service would need at least 130,000 passengers a year to be viable. In contrast, The Cat carried a total of just over 75,000 passengers in 2009, its last year of operation.

The report concluded that a ferry could be commercially successful, but would have to offer more than transportation.

“The ferry’s business model needs to be built around the passenger’s on-board experience rather than simply offering another transportation route from the U.S. northeast to Nova Scotia,” the report said. “A ‘cruise ferry’ between Yarmouth and Portland (of which the Scotia Prince was an old example) is the only suitable service model.”

It’s too early to tell what sort of response the Nova Scotia RFP will draw, or how a new ferry would differ from previous ones. But Brennan said he was optimistic.

“Portland and Yarmouth have enjoyed a close relationship for generations and we have both benefited from the economic and tourism opportunities associated with the ferry service,” the mayor said. “I along with city and state officials will continue to support this initiative and will work closely with the governments of Yarmouth and Nova Scotia to see this service restored.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.